Thursday, August 15, 2019

A Parent’s Survival Guide to the Anti-Vax Movement

By Zachary Jones, MD
Dallas Anesthesiologist
Member, Texas Medical Association

Vaccine safety is a growing topic of conversation both online and in doctors’ offices. Three years ago, when my wife and I were pregnant with our first child and picking a pediatrician, the office manager asked if we “believed in vaccines.”  As a physician (anesthesiologist) I said, “Of course!” I was surprised the pediatrician’s office needed to ask such a screening question. 

However, three years later and now with two boys (ages 1 and 2), I too have a strong desire to know if those around us believe in the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Unfortunately, according to a reputable PLOS Medicine (peer-reviewed medical journal) article from June 2018, I live in a region designated a national “hot spot” for nonmedical childhood vaccine exemptions. Texas has multiple hot spots including Plano, Fort Worth, Austin, and Houston.  Even more concerning, the elementary school that my kids will attend has one of the highest vaccine exemption rates in the entire school district (scroll to page 35 in the viewer). That increases the likelihood of children becoming infected by vaccine-preventable diseases. While my kids are on schedule for all of their shots, this still concerns me.

Living in an area on the front lines of the anti-vaccine epidemic, I asked myself, “How can I make a difference in my community?” I had an idea – take it to the streets.

This past spring, I visited all 312 houses in my neighborhood subdivision, offering legitimate medical resources with friendly face-to-face discussion about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases. In support, my wife took our two boys in their red wagon along for the journey. With family in tow, my neighbors would see that I am not a salesman or an outsider, but rather a person they can trust. I considered this my “anti-Facebook” approach, where civil discourse and verified information can be traded face-to-face. The TMA Be Wise – Immunize program provided the educational handouts I used.

My experience meeting my neighbors was eye-opening. On my very first walk, I met a family a few doors down who have an immunocompromised child who cannot receive vaccines. (Patients with a weakened immune system do not have as great an ability to fight infections or diseases. Some cancer or leukemia patients are commonly in this situation.) This galvanized my efforts to spread accurate information about childhood vaccines. It took my family and me 11 walks to visit every home in my neighborhood. None were more important than that first day, when we learned someone on our very street is at risk of potentially deadly disease without the “herd immunity” we as a community of vaccinated people create around them. (If enough people are vaccinated, a herd immunity safe-zone is created, thereby helping to protect the more vulnerable people in their midst.)

Zachary Jones, MD, with one of his sons. 
Everyone I met was very supportive of my family’s efforts to spread information on the safety and efficacy of vaccines. However, my personal experience created an interesting contrast compared with what we frequently see online and in social media swarming groups of vocal “anti-vaxxers,” often from different states or other countries, peddling misinterpreted studies and unverified anecdotes.

As an anesthesiologist, my role in vaccine education is unique. I do not vaccinate patients in my medical specialty. So when some vaccine opponents name-call doctors “big pharma shills” who profit by promoting vaccines, that label doesn’t apply to me because I don’t even give the shots. However, my training during four years of medical school, four years of residency, and as a practicing physician gives me the tools to decipher complex technical studies and assess their validity. On that basis of knowledge, I know vaccines are effective and safe.

But as a parent of two little boys who have yet to complete their series of childhood vaccines and a consumer of social media myself, I see how confusing it is to sift through the noise and find accurate, honest data during the current anti-vax misinformation siege.

This brings me to my Parent’s Survival Guide to the Anti-Vax Movement:
  1. Be critical – When you see “studies” posted online, know there is a massive misinformation campaign currently being fought. I have seen anti-vaxxers take credible data on vaccines and misinterpret it on social media. 
  2. Vote with your dollars – Having just enrolled our two boys in daycare, we learned that some locations require children to be vaccinated, but others don’t. Furthermore, certain private schools will have a much higher-than-average vaccine exemption rate, while others require full vaccination. These data are available to the public in the Annual Survey of Immunization Status. Choose wisely, to protect your children.
  3. Vote with your vote! – The vaccine issue is highly political. While the anti-vax political machine is very loud, it is in fact a small (but growing) minority. Politicians will cater to small groups who reliably turn out at the polls and regularly lobby for their cause. If you want to create change, you have to vote for candidates who support vaccination and speak up to let others know as well. (If you do, you will be in the majority: Recent studies found the vast majority of Texas Republican-primary voters support vaccine requirements for school enrollment.)
  4. Trust reliable sources – Your pediatrician and primary care physician are invaluable resources; talk to them if you have any questions about vaccines. They went through grueling training to take care of you and your children. Current efforts to dehumanize your doctors and present them as part of a conspiracy couldn’t be further from the truth. Every doctor I know became one to take care of people.
  5.  Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing – Certain anti-vax groups will present themselves as “supporting vaccine choice” in an effort to capitalize on the Texan values of self-reliance and independence. Then these same groups pump out misinformation across social media daily, to increase anti-vaccine sentiment based on misinterpreted data or outright falsehoods. Make no mistake, they are “dyed in the wool” anti-vax.
  6. Be kind to each other – These are words my grandmother left for me. Often times, a sick child or family member is at the heart of someone’s mistrust of vaccines. And while statistically that illness is overwhelmingly unlikely to have been caused by vaccination, it’s a difficult emotional journey that person is going through. Today’s climate of fear, be it fear of vaccine side effects or fear of preventable diseases, puts us at odds. Ultimately we all want our children to be healthy, and kindness is a great first step.

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